Two Years Later: Where Are We Now? (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

“Two weeks to flatten the curve.” If that infamous line from 2020 still makes you grit your teeth, you’re not the only one.

But here’s the real issue that we as church leaders should be focused on: How have our churches and ministries handled the last two years’ worth of unprecedented opportunities?

Yes, granted, these years have also been fraught with peril, and none of us had ever “passed this way before” (Josh. 3:4). We might even well be shown grace for mistakes made, or decisions that we regret, from two years ago at this time. If we are still in the same holding pattern 24 months later, however, there may be a serious problem. In fact, I would submit that our focus ought to be on the next crisis, not the last one. From my humble view of the world, it is not a matter of if such a thing is going to happen again, but when it is going to happen.

I don’t know what form that crisis will take and, granted, it may be of such a nature that will be outside or beyond any preparations we endeavor to make. However, all of us should be using this time to allow for “iron (to sharpen) iron” (Prov. 27:17). We should want to be in the best position possible to minister to hurting and confused people—and even to address the substance of any forthcoming crises head-on.

I left off last time by sharing a few things of which I am firmly convinced. Here is another one: I am firmly convinced that over the last two years the nature of ministry has changed a great deal—likely forever.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The fundamental, Biblical requirements for the church have not, and will never, change. But some of the means by which we may effectively reach our communities with the eternal truths of Scripture have changed, and probably never will return to the way things used to be. So, the question is, How are we adapting to these changes?

Many of us have made real changes—sometimes drastic changes—to our ministries in response to the pandemic. But have we taken the time to evaluate the results of these changes—or have they simply become a new rut which now catches all available energy? Have we asked ourselves if the things we attempted in response to COVID-19 are still needed, or if they were ever even effective at all? Even more importantly, do they have us poised to meet the challenge of future crises?

I mentioned last time that, in our own service with The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, we used the initial phase of the pandemic, when we could not be in churches for several weeks, to strengthen our ministry in the areas of communications and technology. This, in essence, gave us the opportunity—born out of necessity—to do things we really should have been doing all along anyway.

I don’t think that our experience was uncommon in this regard. Technology is the area where I have noticed the biggest difference in the churches in which we minister. Pre-pandemic, probably most churches recorded my messages on audio. A handful recorded them on video, and quite a few did no recording at all.

These days, I have to assume that I will be recorded on video almost every time I speak—and very often it is by live stream.

Now, that has an impact upon my preaching and teaching because every word that I say, and every multi-media slide that I show, is immediately and forever released in public, and can never be edited or retrieved.

I wonder, however, if I may ask a few questions about this practice. First of all, is this really wise? Is it effective? For some, the answer is surely yes. In fact, they were doing this long before the shutdowns of 2020. Others, however, may want to reevaluate their situations.

I want to ask this gently, but clearly: Is a grainy phone video of a church service, with muffled sound recorded off the loud speaker, a really good testimony for the gospel? Do we really want these productions bouncing around cyberspace until kingdom come? Are popular social media sites really the best place on which to post them?

When I had the opportunity to teach online several years ago, it forced me to develop a philosophy for my use of technology. These principles govern what I do now, for instance, on my page at SermonAudio.com/pscharf:

  • Good written communications are better than poor-quality audio.
  • Good-quality audio is better than poor-quality video.
  • A good audio slideshow is better than a poor-quality preaching video.
  • Finally, a good-quality audio is better than a good-quality video—with bad audio.

This simple paradigm gives me hope that I can be effective in my use of media—at virtually no cost—in today’s world. Maybe I will never be the next Dr. D. James Kennedy, and do not have access to a professional recording studio, but I certainly can write columns!

Fundamentalists have argued for years that the means by which we communicate truth is of utmost importance. We need to apply these standards now to the methods we are using—in the wake of the pandemic, and in preparation for future contingencies. If your ministry is still stuck in March of 2020, it’s time for some reevaluation. The goal should be to minister creatively, with excellence, especially in times of crisis.

If you need help, you may want to look around—in your church, or even outside of it—for a talented young person with an interest in technology, perhaps even as a career. You may be amazed at who you find!

I hope that this column will serve to encourage, not discourage, those who need it most. Next time, we will continue along the lines of examining our communications since the last crisis began.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Paul Scharf 2019 Bio


Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, serving in the midwest. He also assists Whitcomb Ministries and writes for “Answers” Magazine and Regular Baptist Press. For more information on his ministry, visit foi.org/scharf or email pscharf@foi.org.

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There are 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I agree. I think most governors did a decent job as well. It's super easy to Monday morning quarterback people who have to run whole states. None of us are aware of a thimble-full's worth of the information and tradeoffs a governor would wrestle with. Not that there weren't a few obvious oversteps also. But most of these, even, looked--and still look--like items in the "excessive but understandable errors under the circumstances" column.

As for ministry technology, it's really hard to generalize accurately. So much depends on your community, where your church is in its life cycle, etc. If you're in an area where people have choices for gospel preaching churches, you have a niche. So what's your niche? Most important in a crisis: what does your church body need? Most important for outreach and growth: who are you trying to reach in your own community?

Audio-only might make sense for some.

I've seen some leaders broadly equate all video with watching a spiritual movie. This is not even close to the truth, though I don't think the writer is dishonest. He's just ignorant. There's a continent of difference between a movie and a live stream of your very own church meeting for worship. There's another huge difference between that and your church hosting a Zoom/Teams/etc. meeting where people interact with one another live.   I strongly prefer the latter, especially for Sunday School, but I think it can work to some extent in 'auditorium worship meetings' also.  The sense of connection with real people, people you know, really seeking God together is as far from a 'spiritual movie' as picking beans in your own garden is from looking at pictures of beans in an encyclopedia.

OK, weak analogy. But it's a big difference. You have to experience both to be fully aware of the difference.

During the worst COVID lockdown days, Zoom meetings were priceless to me and other folks in my family. I did some teaching that way, which was a fascinating experience, but seeing my fellow believers face to face (live video is face to face in most ways) and engaging in unscripted 'small talk' with them, was tremendously comforting. Church lobby life is important, and, as far as video goes, only live smallish meetings can approximate it.

Looking back the ideal would have been SS and prayer in small groups via Zoom, AM services live, either in Facebook or some other channel.

Regarding Paul's take on Facebook, etc., those videos aren't really unalterable for all of time. The nature of modern information tech is that you can put out an updated version. You can usually also delete stuff. There are even tools for removing your content from Google search indexing. But could it live on somewhere in original form copied on someone else's site or on archive.org's Wayback Machine, etc.? Sure. So there is some validity to the point. It's analogous to books though. You can publish a revised version of your book, but somebody somewhere is likely to always have a copy of the first edition. What's new about the internet is powerful searching. Finding a hard copy first edition of a publisher-retracted book can be pretty difficult. Take years. Finding an original version of a deleted video might only take a few minutes, from your easy chair.

For Christians, this should look a lot different than it does to others. We give account for "every idle word" at the judgment. So all our output is "recorded" anyway... in the place that matters most.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

My church had already been online a touch, but COVID accelerated that a bit, and we also learned how to do services creatively--in the parking lots when it was cold, and in an open area during the summer when it was warm. Those were some good times, and if someone asks me if we should do more services like that, my answer is YES.  The youth learned to cope as well.

Things we didn't learn well; I don't believe that we learned well how to cope with some of the restrictions that COVID imposed, and that means I don't believe that we've learned lessons that would be very valuable in a case when we would be truly oppressed.  So I think we have missed a great opportunity there.

One place where I'm not quite sure is with the question of "have we learned how important it is to have a little margin in our lives?"  The church is doing well financially, but we are a very tired congregation.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Craig Toliver's picture

We went with the flow (mostly):

  • I had just started a new job in January 2020. Ended up working from home for 15 months.
  • We we in a church that ignored COVID rules ... we ended up leaving
  • We found another church with a great on-line service and after we had the vaccine we attended and joined
  • We followed all of the masking rules even if we hated them
  • As an aside. A close friend lost 2 brothers to COVID and I lost a friend to COVID
Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

To Bert's point about missed opportunity to prepare, I have the impression this is a widespread problem. COVID exposed some large gaps in practical theology in our churches--or large gaps in awareness of practical theology. In some churches, the theology was there but had never been tested before: that is, they had sound teaching on how to respond biblically to government requirements that seem unwarranted but don't require disobedience to God. When tested, some applied their teaching (Dever's church in the D.C. area, for example, if I'm remembering the right one). Others modified their theology (JMac's church in Calif) to fit their strong antagonism toward the government. I know that's a bit harsh, but the contrast between "our teaching then" and "what we've decided to do and teach now" has been dramatic in some places.

But many churches had, apparently, not given it much thought at all.

And after two years, that's still where many of us are. I have little doubt that real oppression is going to happen (and has happened here and there, usually later reined in by the courts). Long before there is widespread, serious government oppression of churches, though, there will be gov requirements that are irksome, excessive, ill conceived, and politically charged--but not really interfering with obedience to Scripture. In general, I think churches are far from a) knowing how to tell the difference between improper government demands and anti-biblical government demands, and b) knowing how to maintain biblical attitudes and tone and response when gov rules are unwanted and problematic but not anti-biblical. A huge piece of the latter is knowing how to navigate the increasingly passionate but also increasingly sloppy and self-contradictory politics.

We need some good books and some good seminary courses as well as some congregation-level resources along the lines of 'preparing for real persecution.'

It's going to happen, I'm pretty sure. When it does, it will be partly because we brought it on ourselves by helping fuel misguided coercive politics, among other things. But mostly it will be because the culture doesn't have even a vaguely Christian consensus at the center anymore, and so the pieces of Christian worldview that still influence in many ways are sure to slowly fade.

...Unless there is a miraculous movement of God to bring very large numbers of people to genuine conversion. We certainly shouldn't rule that out. Revelation isn't encouraging on that point (or Matt 24 etc), but we don't know that we're there yet.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Aaron,

Thanks, as always, for running my article!

As I said, I am not planning to get into politics in the series, but your response provokes some general questions:

- If a church in Wisconsin refused to shut down, were they truly violating Romans 13, in light of the fact that our Supreme Court later "struck down Gov. Tony Evers' order"?

- How much credibility did our governmental leaders choose to squander in pursuit of the course they took last time? Is it reasonable to assume that churches, and individual Christians, will be more compliant—or significantly more skeptical—in the next go around?

I am all for the educational advances you prescribe, but I personally believe that future crises are much more likely to jump to the realms of harsh economic penalties and other forms of actual hardcore persecution—for which the beta testing appears to be ongoing in other countries, right now on our TV screens. I am not sure we'll have the luxury of debating the finer points in a seminary course, unless maybe we begin today.

Blessings!!

Church Ministries Representative, serving in the Midwest, for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry 

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